In the great void that is being left behind by Viswanathan Anand, a talented group of Indian youngsters has stepped up to take over. One is set to become the highest ranked Indian next month. But in this past week, Grandmaster Praggnanandhaa Rameshbabu picked up from another piece of Anand’s legacy.
The 18-year-old from Chennai became the first and only Indian since Anand to reach the final of the Chess World Cup, eventually finishing as runner-up to world No 1 Magnus Carlsen on Thursday.
The achievement does not flatter Praggnanandhaa. For years he has been a prodigy brimming with talent and promise. He was once the youngest International Master, and later became the then second youngest Grandmaster.
Last year, he became the youngest player – 16 – to beat the then reigning world champion Carlsen (a record later broken by compatriot D Gukesh).
But despite his feat at the 2023 Chess World Cup in Baku, Azerbaijan, his coach Grandmaster RB Ramesh asserted that him getting that far in the tournament was not quite on the cards.
“I would not say that this is not a surprise,” Ramesh said to Scroll.
“How I see it is that Pragg wants to be the world champion eventually. But we are not there yet, we still have to make some progress in our chess. It’s good to reach the World Cup final and play against Magnus himself on such a big platform. It’s an honour and privilege.”
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In the final, Praggnanandhaa played out two draws in the classical format to push the match into a tiebreaker. That is where Carlsen came out on top, taking advantage of an error to win the first game and then holding out for a draw in the next to win his first Chess World Cup.
“I’m happy [Praggnanandhaa] managed to make a draw in the standard and time control game,” Ramesh added. “He could have done a little better in the tiebreak. He was pushing for a win in the first half, and then something snapped and then his play deteriorated and lost quickly. That was quite painful. But being so young, he managed to cope up well.”
There was, however, no reason why Praggnanandhaa would not be able to handle the pressure of competing at that high level. After all, its all a part of the goal he set for himself for over a decade.
Ramesh remembered a time when an eight-year-old Praggnanandhaa decided he wanted to be a world champion, quite like many of his peers his age. The difference however, was that he already had the determination and understanding of what all he needed to do to get there.
“Even then, he knew he had to put in the hard work, and he’s been doing this for all these years without any complaints,” Ramesh added about the former Under-8 and Under-10 world champion.
“He is still the same talented, hard-working child who is passionate about chess. He is more mature now, stronger, and more confident. But these are not changes. This is evolution.”
After the win, Carlsen was quick to congratulate his opponent, even dubbing Praggnanandhaa a ‘mentality monster’ for his sharp focus and drive.
Regardless of the occasion or the growth in the sport – meaning there were more people watching him than he has ever had before – the Chennai-lad remained calm and resolute in his task. Ramesh claimed that Praggnanandhaa doesn’t see the extra attention as pressure, but instead welcomes it as another source of motivation.
And the teenager remains focused on improving his game, already making a few important tweaks to his play.
“His opening game was weak, but he worked on it and it’s quite good now,” Ramesh explained. “The end-game technique is growing day-by-day, and his defensive technique is good against stronger opponents.”
The biggest change perhaps came outside of chess. Ramesh recalled a time when the game dominated his routine. But now Praggnanandhaa has started to find a healthy work-life balance with activities outside his craft.
“He likes to play cricket and badminton with his friends, and has also started learning swimming,” the coach said.
In an interview with The Indian Express in 2016, Praggnanandhaa’s father Rameshbabu had described his son’s love for watching cartoons. The current world No 20 (in the live ratings) has changed preferences since then.
“Now it’s not cartoons, he loves watching Tamil comedy videos,” said Ramesh. “He’s a big fan of Vadivelu, a Tamil actor and comedian. He puts Vadivelu videos and keeps laughing. But he knows when to stop.”
There is still a while to go before he can achieve his target of becoming world champion. But by getting that far in Baku, he has booked a spot for himself in the Candidates tournament, which decides the challenger who will face reigning world champion Ding Liren for the World Championships title.
The journey may still be far, but he has taken a major step in the right direction. The prodigy has now become a contender.